The Better Quarterback

As a fan of sports today, we love to compare this player to that player or this quarterback to that quarterback.  Especially with the QB position we tend to compare total passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions thrown, win and loss records in the regular season and playoffs, and just about any other statistic out there.

From my experience, the biggest stat that sets the elite quarterbacks from the average ones is playoff performance, especially the coveted question, “How many rings do you have?”.  Just for fun, let’s try something.  Imagine for a moment we analyze a couple fun comparisons- don’t worry, the math isn’t too difficult.  Try answering the following hypotheticals:

 

 

1.  Quarterback A plays for 15 years and throws 400 touchdowns.  Quarterback B plays for 20 years and throws 401 touchdowns.  Who’s considered better?

 

2.  Quarterback A starts in one Super Bowl and goes 1-0 (winning his only Super Bowl).  Quarterback B starts in one Super Bowl and loses goes 0-1 and never gets to the big game again.  Which one is perceived better?

 

3.  Quarterback A plays in 2 Super Bowls and goes 2-0.  Quarterback B plays in 3 Super Bowls and is 2-1.  Which QB is considered better?

 

4.  Quarterback A has an average playoff QBR (new since 2008) of 37.7 and lost 1 Super Bowl.  Quarterback B has an average playoff QBR of 71.9 and lost 1 Super Bowl.  Which QB is considered a more clutch playoff QB?

 

I’ll give you a moment to jot down your answers.

I’ll wait.

Ok.

 

Let’s dive deeper into a couple of these that interested me the most.  Say we expand on Hypothetical #2 and use real life examples.  Just to refresh, we’re comparing a Quarterback that won a Super Bowl to one that hasn’t.  To a sports analyst, you would probably need more information, but to the average fan, most would say Quarterback A.  Specifically because he went to the Super Bowl and won.  Easy choice for the fans, right?

Now, let’s add a bit of context.  Quarterback A is Jim McMahon for the 1985 Chicago Bears and Quarterback B is Dan Marino for the Miami Dolphins.  If I asked you again, who would you consider to be at the top of the discussion of choosing the better quarterback?  Both have established careers and usually mentioned whenever these particular teams or Super Bowl XX comes up in discussion, but the answer to this later question would be Dan Marino.  So why is that?

 

Dan Marino has over 61,000 yards passing in his career, posts a career quarterback rating of 86.4, threw for 420 touchdowns and went 155-103 in his 17  year career.

Jim McMahon has a career of over 18,000 passing yards, a 78.2 quarterback rating and threw only 100 touchdowns going 70-33 in his 15 year career.

 

The stats highly elevate Dan Marino’s argument for the better quarterback, yet you can definitely see that McMahon posted a better career record <b>and</b> has a Super Bowl ring to show for it.

I hope you guys know where this is going.  We’re leaving one statistic out.  The “clutch” factor- or who performs better when the game is on the line.  With most of the comparisons I’ve seen from other analysts, there has to be a weighted scale of how much credit should be given to a person’s individual stats against their win/loss or “number of rings” record.  Here in lies the problem.  When we assign a weight, whatever metric that is finally calculated at the end would be a number that is highly influenced by opinion.  Do we weigh Super Bowl statistics higher than playoff statistics?  If so, how much?  This is the toughest part of building any type of model that would make a calculation for us.

I understand that we’re missing the clutch factor.  But should we be?  If Jim McMahon and Dan Marino were in the Super Bowl together with identical career statistics (I know it’s hard to imagine, but try).  During that game, Marino threw 400 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.  Jim McMahon has two interceptions, only 100 yards and no touchdowns.  McMahon’s team returns two kicks and two fumbles to tie the game.  Jim McMahon has the ball with under two minutes and the ball.  He runs a couple times and gets to mid-field with a couple seconds left.  His only chance is to throw a heave and hope for a miracle.  He connects with no time remaining and wins Super Bowl XX!  Which QB had the better game?  Which QB should be named MVP?  Which QB is going to go down in history as a Super Bowl winner and which one won’t?

We know who had the better game.  And we know who got the Super Bowl win.  And we know who appeared to step up when it mattered.  I know this is a very specific example, but here’s why we can’t really add stats and records (even Super Bowl wins) to get some magical number to rank the best QB of all time.

So here’s my solution.  Let’s avoid the urge to try to combine and weigh specific stats to get some number with a huge variable of opinion.  The reason for this, primarily, is because there are team statistics (wins and losses) and individual statistics (yards, touchdowns, interceptions).

If we compare the two signal callers above, we can probably say that Jim McMahon was on the better “team” during his playoff run, but Dan Marino was the better and more efficient player at the position.

Let’s review another comparison.  Just if you aren’t paying attention or just skimming this column, I wanted to give context to another one of the hypotheticals I posted above.  Which Quarterback did you chose for Hypothetical #4?

The more clutch quarterback appears to be Quarterback B because he posted the higher QBR and they both lost the same amount of Super Bowls.  Imagine if Quarterback A, in this situation, won a Super Bowl in those years.  Would that change your answer?  It might, but it’s all about your opinion on how much a Super Bowl win adds to a player’s stats.  I’m not saying that a Super Bowl win adds nothing to a player’s legacy or greatness.  It’s just that it’s difficult to weigh how much.

In this particular hypothetical, Quarterback A is Tom Brady for the New England Patriots.  He posted, on average, a 37.7 playoff QBR since 2008.  Quarterback B is Peyton Manning.  He recorded a 71.9 playoff QBR average since 2008.  Let me remind you that these are “post-season” QBRs.  Both players have been to the Super Bowl and lost.  If we reverse in time and go purely off of QBR, we would crown both as Super Bowl chokes with Manning having a better playoff performance.  Ok. Ok.  I know all of the people who are building their own opinions in their head.  You are asking how I can say such a thing, but let’s look at the other individual stat before the QBR was introduced in 2008.

The Quarterback Passer Rating is the only other “collective” individual statistic that we can go off of.  Let’s compare the average rating between these two quarterbacks.  Since the start of their careers, Brady holds an 87.4 passer rating while Manning holds an 88.4 passer rating.  Manning has the slight edge, but they are almost identical.  Oh, did I mention that these are “post-season” passer ratings?

To me, the argument for the best quarterback has a lot of variables: individual statistics, team statistics, when they played, coaching strategies, and so on.  Whenever someone thinks they have it figured out, there’s always an argument against that theory.  Going back to our second hypothetical, if we have quarterbacks with the same number of Super Bowl appearances (one winning and one losing) and stats that swing the balance (the Super Bowl loser having superior individual statistics), all of us have different opinions for how those should be weighed.

In the fourth hypothetical, we could have two quarterbacks that have polar opposites of post season QBRs, nearly identical career passer ratings, and one of them having two more Super Bowl victories and three more appearances than the other and it’d be tough to compare them.

This isn’t going to help you crown the best quarterback in the NFL.  I’ve tried pretty much every different kind of formula to get that magic ranking of all the quarterbacks.  The truth is, that without some type of opinion, you can’t create a formula that includes every aspect of being an NFL quarterback.

Some aspects that make this comparison impossible would be the level of weight we put on a win or loss (which is a team statistic), the time period of when the player was active, level of skill on their team or the strength of schedule. There are two things that we can truly say without being challenged by someone else’s opinion.  Quarterback A is the most efficient at his position and Quarterback B is on the best team during their active career.